Thursday, June 27, 2013

Beyond Light (on James Turrell)

beyond light
by Douglas Messerli

Michael Govan and Christine Y. Kim James Turrell: A Retrospective / Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Howard Fox and I saw the show on June 24, 2013.

Before visiting the remarkable James Turrell retrospective I had seen two or perhaps three Terrell works, once in 1995 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and later at the Brentwood home of Mandy and Cliff Einstein’s, where Howard and I sat for a long while in the startlingly beautiful, Second Meeting, wherein, while watching the twilight sky over our heads, we heard the howls of local coyotes.

       I had also, obviously, see pictures of his wonderfully lit spaces, and I had read a little about his great Roden Crater project, but I had still been unprepared for what we witnessed at LACMA. The show, along with its substantial catalogue (which represents, mostly, works not on display at the museum) should help catapult Terrell to the stellar level of artists, if not position him as one of the most amazing creators today. Museum Director, Michael Govan’s, show takes us  from prints such as the Still Light Series (1991) and Deep Sky (1984) to early projects such as the famed white Afrum (1966), one of the first pieces to be shown at the Pasadena Art Museum, curated by John Coplans, in 1967. Further projects such as the stunning Juke (1968) are followed by a room holograms and other memorable lighted spaces such as Raemar Pink White (1969), the cross-corner construction, Raethro II (Red) (also of 1969), Arco (Green) (1968), Tycho (White) (1967), and the wedgework piece, Key Lime (1994), along with numerous others
     As most visitors to whom I’ve spoken about this show comment, while they are absolutely awestruck by the spaces, there is also something quite dizzying and even a bit frightening as one makes one’s way into the various spaces, sometimes with only a hand against the wall to lead the way.

      Across from the Broad Museum, at LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion, lies Terrell’s large Ganzfield, Breathing Light (2013), a monstrous machine-like work where one lies down, after signing a statement of sobriety and sanity, to witness a strange out-of-body experience that is based on the inside of one’s eyes. The powerful Dark Space Dark Matters (2011) follows in the next gallery. In the final room, the curator has gathered several cast plaster models of Terrell’s invented constructs such as BoullĂ©’s Boule l (1994) and a complete model of what is perhaps the most ambitious art installation of all time, Roden Crater, owned by Terrell, in which he has constructed numerous buildings which house visual sun and light projects  

      Each of these pieces deserves its own commentary, something, however, which I will (perhaps cannot) attempt. What I will reassert, based on observations by my companion Howard N. Fox, published in his “Dreamworks: A Concept of Concept Art in California (in Reading California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000), is that there is a huge difference from Terrell’s major minimalist influences such as Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Richard Serra, and the light works of figures such as Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Eric Orr and Turrell. If the concept-driven works of the East Coast figures, as well as artists in Europe, South America, and Japan were based on their “literalism and materialism,” those on the West Coast are embedded with associate meanings that alter the effect of the works. Fox compares, for example Joseph Kossuth’s work One and Three Chairs and Eleanor Antin’s California Lives, the first consisting “an ordinary wood chair, and flanking either side, a black-and-white photograph of the same chair and a photograph of the text of a dictionary definition of the word chair,” all of which questions, obviously, what we suppose to be a chair. Antin’s work, consisting of a folding snack table “on which are scattered a hair curler, a melamine plastic coffee cup and saucer, a king-size filter-tipped cigarette, and a matchbook from a low-life bar-and-grill uses her everyday   objects to play out “meaning” in a completely different way, in, taken together, they create a series of possible associations, a kind personal entry into the imagination of a fictional figure who might have owned these ordinary things.

      Using several other comparisons between West Coast and East Coast concept-based artists, Fox argues that rather than the literal materialism of East Coast conceptualists, the California figures seek out different types of meaning, certainly something quite apparent in Turrell’s art. The light and illusion Turrell’s works create, instead of revealing the light itself as, say, in Flavin’s colored tubes of illumination, effects the viewer in several ways—marvel, awe, reflection, spiritual awakening, internal questioning, etc—that Flavin’s elements of light, though often beautiful and, perhaps, even awe-inspiring, do not invoke. Although Terrell works in simple forms created out of his spiritual and conceptual interrelationship with light and space, what they manifest is something “other,” a series of associations and meanings not unlike Antin’s objects upon a folding tray. If people choose to use terms, as Wil S. Hylton has argued in his recent New York Times Magazine article on Turrell that almost descend in “gibberish”: “the thingness of light,” “the alpha state” of mind, it is perhaps because Turrell’s use of light calls up so much else than its own materialism; it is light that through the artist’s wizardry and manipulation almost become something else, something that creeps into our own individual imaginations and calls up personal meaning for each viewer. While we may all be in looking at the very same “object,” that object is most definitely no longer just itself, but something other and apart.

     Walking out into the plaza the other day, Howard pointed the heavily-bearded Turrell at Stark’s Bar, surrounded by a group of admirers. The artist looked, indeed, very much like a Quaker—the faith in which he grew up—from the 19th century, or a wise guru who clearly might also be able to speak, as I’ve read he does, on Riemannian geometry.


Los Angeles, June 25, 2013      

Friday, June 21, 2013

Twelve Tales in Another Town: The 2nd Tale (Unexpected Visitors)

twelve tales in another town: the 2nd tale (unexpected visitors)
by Douglas Messerli

My parents were basically honest folk, who taught my sister, brother, and me that lying was not a good thing to do, which perhaps accounts for my determined decision in writing these memoirs of speaking only the truth, even admitting when my memory might be in question—despite the fact that, as I have revealed throughout, I have not always told the truth, particularly early on about my sexuality and various actions throughout my life. It seems that perhaps I can make up for any lies in my life by telling the truth, as best I know it, in the numerous volumes of my annual memoirs.

       Even my parents, however, were occasionally caught in a fib. The most notable of these in my childhood was when one my father’s cousins, Irwin, would suddenly arrive in town. I can’t really remember what Irwin even looked like, or how he was related. I suppose him to be one of the numerous relatives from the Zumbach tribe, a large conglomerate of my father’s cousins who farmed, and, through my mother’s sister and the marriage in the previous generation of two great aunts on my mother’s side to two Zumbach brothers, popped up regularly at all our family reunions. Irwin, who apparently lived in Arkansas, was, I realized the one time I did see him, just a step up from a hillbilly, a real “hick” of a person whom my parents, in their bourgeois journey from farm to noted town leaders, did not even be want to be seen with. When Irwin arrived the two or three times he visited, he would come early in the morning, beginning to shout out his greetings even before he had exited the car or truck or whatever vehicle he was driving.

      Those greetings, when we were still gathered about the breakfast table, resulted each time in looks of complete terror sweeping across my parent’s faces, followed by an immediate attempt to turn off all lights and a rush of both my brother and me into a dark bedroom, where my mother would whisper, “ you must all be quiet.”  For young children there was something terrifying about this suddenly enforced quietude, particularly when the man outside, now pounding upon the front door, had only grown louder in his call outs of my parent’s Christian names: “John, Lorna, where are you? You there?”

      Clearly, even my younger brother must have known that we were most certainly not at home, as our mother gestured for us to duck down as he went around the house, peering into window after window in search of his disappeared kinfolk. I’m sure our car, still in driveway, must have given us away, for no matter how long we lay low Irwin continued his assault, making a ruckus loud enough, certainly, to attract the small-town neighbors of Newhall over most of the village. “John, Lorna, are you there?” After a while, I began to giggle, my mother frowningly gesturing with a finger pushed up against her lips. Of course, that made me giggle even more, my brother simultaneously, in his increasingly curiosity about the would-be intruder, raising his head higher and higher.

       Each time when Irwin suddenly descended upon us in this matter, my parents ultimately gave in, probably because of the neighbors, granting him a belated entrance to our house, muttering, I am sure, something about having slept late or having been unable to hear him—an outright lie that even someone as apparently ignorant as he must have sensed.

       To be fair, it was not only that John and Lorna were “embarrassed” about their country cousin, but because, so I ascertained, that his visits also were linked to requests for money which, with two children and a third on the way, by young father and mother could ill-afford to offer as a never-to-be-paid-back loan. My father, in fact, was a true “man of the people,” embarrassing me, years later, for his willingness to talk to literally anyone he might meet in a cafĂ©, no matter how down-and-out or just plain stupid the man or woman might be. Oddly enough, I now react the same to nearly anyone I meet in a bar—although, I admit, the bars I frequent attract a much more sophisticated clientele than my father’s sandwich shops. My dear friend Charles Bernstein, once replied—after my telling him of the fascinating conversation I had just had at a bar—that he believed he had never spoken to any stranger in a bar or restaurant. “Pity, I replied. It’s there I’ve had some of the most elucidating conversations of my life.”        

       Nonetheless, my parents were “embarrassed” by cousin Irwin, not only because of the width of his palm-treed ties, the sweat dripping down the side, back, and front of his unironed shirts, and the height of his pants cuff, but because of the loudness of his voice and the coarseness of his language. Upon one of the two or three visits he actually dared to confront my father at his office as Superintendent of Schools, leaving my father’s poor secretary with something near to apoplexy.  “Irwin,” I remember father saying as he repeated the details of the onslaught to us at the dinner table, “you must never visit me at the office again.” Yet Irwin, obviously a true innocent, could hardly be expected to attend to that command, and I believe, after yet another home assault, he did show up in the holy halls of Newhall High.

     Oddly enough, the nearby farmer Zumbachs never visited us. Although my parents were friendly with several of the brothers, and, as a family we quite often visited my mother’s sister, Carol and Myron Zumbach, none of them except Carol ever crossed our doorway as far as I remember. The Zumbachs, as I relate in My Year 2000, grew, through their corporate farming, rather wealthy, controlling much of the richest farmland in Eastern Iowa, growing corn and soybeans and raising pigs, cows, and chickens.

      Years later, visiting my home and the environs with my senior editor, Diana Daves, we drove to the beautiful small town of Manchester, where my grandmother had lived, driving back along a highway that passed through the Zumbach farmlands. The sky had suddenly grown quite dark and, somewaht in worry and partly as a joke, I suggested to Diana that it looked a bit like a tornado was in the brew. She quickly grew nervous. “Don’t worry,” I quipped, slightly tauntingly “we can stop anywhere along here. Almost every farm contains a Zumbach, all relatives!” She laughed.

      Not truly believing my own bravado, I suddenly determined to turn down one of the gravel roads which cross at regular mile-long intervals through the Iowa countryside. “Let’s visit my Aunt Carol and Uncle Myron,” I laughed. “There you’ll see a real Iowa farm,” I boasted, recalling my horrible visits to their home, where the barns stood so close that large flies and mosquitoes hovered over everyone and everything. “Only I don’t really remember how to get there. Here let’s stop at this farm to ask directions.”

      A bit like the Irwin of my childhood, I boldly drove up to the back door, knocking to see if anyone was there. When there was no answer, I knocked once more, and called out, not at all certain that this was one of the famed Zumbach farmsteads. As Diana got out of the car in a kind of fascinated horror, I called in through the screen, “Anyone there?” Finally, after a few more hoots, a man stood up in the doorway. It was indeed one my father’s Zumbach cousins whom I recognized despite his age.

      “Doug,” he called out—my name throughout the midwest—what are you doing here? Hi, I responded, not exactly sure of his Zumbach surname. “I just stopped by to get directions to Myron’s.” He peered out. “Sorry, I was asleep,” and suddenly seeing Diana, paused a moment, as I introduced her. I am sure he was startled since presumably all my large Iowa families had long ago heard about my being gay. Who was this woman? he surely asked himself.

     “It’s up three intersections, over two to the right,” he responded.    

     “You see?” I asked Diana as we pulled away. “Out here,” I bragged, “everyone’s family.”

     And, sure enough, up three, over two we drove, uninvited, into the driveway of my uncle’s and aunt’s farm, Diana surely startled to encounter the primitiveness of it all—all those flies, mosquitoes and the barnyard stinks. They, my uncle and aunt (as well as the flies and misquotes) greeted us, however, with open arms, delighted that we’d found our way to them.

      This week, so I am told, my Uncle Myron died of cancer, leaving his wife, Carol, in a nearby hospice, where she is dying of advanced Alzheimer’s disease. My mother, who now has difficulty traveling, can no longer see her sister, and wouldn’t be recognized if she were to attempt a visit.

     To my knowledge, Irwin never returned after those two or three times in my childhood for another assault. And I don’t know if he still lives.

Los Angeles, June 19, 2013

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Cities of Rape

cities of rape
by Douglas Messerli
One might easily argue, unfortunately, that rape occurs in every country and all times. But 2013 has brought about something seemingly quite different: a series of deadly gang rapes in which women and even children have been killed in primarily three quite different regions of the world: India, Egypt, and Brazil.

      The terrible Indian rapes began in December 2012, with a sexual assault and death of a young physiotherapy student in New Delhi, from which doctors removed various foreign objects embedded in her genitals, including pieces of candles and a small bottle. After that vicious act, several others were reported, the most terrifying of which the a 6-year old girl, raped and left with a slit throat in a public toilet in Delhi reported on April 27. Soon after, a 30- year-old American woman reported being raped in a northern resort town. On March 15, a group of men raped a Swiss tourist in Madhya Pradesh, also attacking her husband. A British tourist leaped from her hotel balcony in fear that the hotel owner was about to assault her. These all seem less sexually oriented than simply representing a hate of the opposite sex with the aim of hurting and destroying their victims.

      There is a long tradition in India of gender separation, a male mindset of women’s absolute inferiority. Sexual violence appears at regular intervals reported in the daily newspapers every week: a 16-year old was raped by her father, a rickshaw-puller raped his 10 year-old daughter, a 19 year-old boy raped a mentally disabled 12 year-old girl, etc. But the new “gang rapes” suggest an escalation that cannot easily be defined. In part, obviously, the growing economy of India, in which women have had a large role, has something to do with this outrageous expression of hate. Women, many of whom have grown more and more Western in their dress and behavior, may also provoke, in some men, a sense of diminishing stature. But the packs of male violators cannot be so easily explained. In part, it may simply have to do with the fact that, until recently, the state and police have done little in response. The government of India has recently strengthened the law to be able to deal more effectively with these offences, but until there is a broader cultural change, women and, in particular, female children feel vulnerable even walking to and from school. An article on CNN recently cited The Asian Centre for Human Rights report that from 2001 to 2011 child rape cases in India jumped from 2,113 to 7, 132, an astounding leap of violent behavior, which effects young girls’ education, as families keep their daughters from attending school simply to protect them, a practice with also often results in early arranged marriages.
In this undated image made from video released by the producers of "Awel el Kheit," or "the Thread," Waleed Hammad walks in a busy shopping district in Cairo, Egypt, dressed as a woman, as a hidden camera crew films him for an investigative story on sexual harassment.
      Similarly, in Cairo—particularly since the Egyptian revolution—women have been attacked and sexually assaulted, even in Cairo’s famed Tahrir Square, where Yasmine Faihti was raped. Women simply walking down Cairo’s streets are followed, stalked, and hounded, with men putting lemons in their pockets and rubbing up again women in buses and other crowded spaces. Taxi drivers often expose themselves to women riders. Other men grab women’s breasts as they walk by in the crowded streets. Increasingly men have joined together to attack, each grabbing various pieces of clothing and luring their victims into dark streets. There were 19 reported attacks on January 25th alone, and many such attacks go unreported.

      Things have gotten so bad that, in one instance, a handsome male reporter dressed as a women and was terrified as he was followed and stalked by several males as he made his way around the city. Morsi’s government, meanwhile, has mostly remained silent about the increasing violations.

      Here, one might assert, some of the incidents simply have to do with the fact that previously highly covered up and burka-clothed woman have felt freer to dress in the Western style. But that is like blaming the women for the attacks they suffer. Cultural attitudes toward women here also play a big part in these assaults. But with no government response, it appears that the fear and suffering felt by Eygpt’s women will not soon disappear.

       Just as frightening is the large increase of rapes in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro which have almost doubled from 2006 to 2012. In a bus a 30-year old woman was raped in front of passengers as it moved down a major avenue. A 14-year-old girl was raped on one of Rio’s most noted beaches. Another woman was raped in a transit van as it made its way through wealthy neighborhoods. An American 21-year-old student was raped in a similar van, while her male companion was beaten.

       In Brazil, such behavior clearly has some of its roots in the vast class differences, where many of that city’s poor live in massive slums, while increasing wealthy middle and upper classes live in heavily guarded homes and apartments. Authorities do little for rape victims in the slums, but the increasing attacks on tourists has brought some public attention, including the establishment of women-only subway cars and increased security in public places. If in each of these countries, reports of such rapes bring with them fear of losing tourist monies, it is even more crucial for the wealthy Brazil to resolve these problems before the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Summer Olympics, both to be held in Rio.

      I cannot truly speculate why rape is growing in these areas at such astounding rates in a time when, for example, in most American cities (with the exception of Chicago and New Orleans) crime has been decreasing. And in a volume which I have titled “Murderers and Angels” it seems important merely to comment on these terrifying shifts in cultural behavior.

      I might add that, increasingly—particularly in Japanese pornography—gang rape in both heterosexual and gay videos—has become a favorite trope. Perhaps it’s time to take another look at Stanley Kubrick’s terrifying, of somewhat mindless, film, A Clockwork Orange.

Los Angeles, June 12, 2013
My reports above were based on articles in The Indian Express, The New York Times, and on CNN.